Notes on Vargas, Griffey, League

marc w · May 10, 2010 at 12:14 am · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s – and their restive fan base – really needed a win today. Thanks to Josh Wilson (!) and Michael Saunders (!), the team’s win probability was above 90% from the 4th inning on.

It’s amazing to me how much one game can mean. Every one of us knows well that it’s possible to be a dispassionate observer of a team that we support – we did it pretty routinely from 2004 on. But while there were elements of black comedy in, say, the 2004 team, this recent losing streak was about as joyless a run as I’ve seen in a while. Can you really be excited about a beating the Angels at home to avoid a sweep? Yes – sheepish excitement is still excitement. I actually liked watching the M’s for the first time in a while; I’ve been hiding out in Tacoma watching the Rainiers a lot more than the M’s. I never thought I’d say I was glad to miss a Felix Day, but hey, I’m glad I missed this week’s Felix day!

And now, bullet points, faithful friend of the blogger:

1: Josh Wilson was the star of the game from a hitting and WPA perspective, but I’d give the first star to Jason Vargas, who’s on quite a tear. I talked about him a few weeks back, but as we get more data on him, what he’s doing looks less and less like a small sample fluke. Last year, his overall results put him in the pitch-to-contact category, but looking at his results by pitch showed that he’d developed a very effective change-up. Vargas got swinging strikes on 22.3% of his change-ups in 2009 compared to a league average of 12.1%. He posted an oSw% (swings on balls outside of the strike zone) rate above the league average.
This year, he’s throwing the change-up a lot more, and it’s every bit as effective: he’s getting swinging strikes on 22.4% of them now, and, as I mentioned before, he’s using it against lefties now too (lefties have swung and missed at about 30% of Vargas’ change-ups during his Mariner career. 30%!). Contact rate is a stat that stabilizes quickly, and we’re now approaching a year’s worth of data that indicates that Vargas’ change-up is a plus pitch. It’s always nerve-racking to watch a guy throwing 87 and give up fly balls, but it’s not exactly unprecedented. One comparable pitcher that comes to mind is Shaun Marcum of the Jays, who’s remarkably similar (right down to the year lost to injury) albeit right handed. Marcum’s contact rate is essentially equal to Felix Hernadez’s thus far, which is impressive for a righty junkballer. Vargas is no slouch either; his 78% rate ties him with CC Sabathia.
The margin for error is very small, as the trail of lefties in the Moyer mold that came up and failed with the M’s attests (anyone remember Bobby Livingston?), but Vargas’ run is one of the few highlights of the year so far.

2: We all know Ken Griffey’s no longer a major league hitter, but his struggles with breaking balls are now about as painful to watch as an Adam Moore AB. Hell, Steve Kelley wrote a column this year about how Griffey looks for FBs almost exclusively at this stage of his career, so this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. Still, I didn’t expect this level of futility: on pitches below 87 MPH, Griffey is 0-14 on balls in play, with 14 swinging strikes. I’m a bit surprised Matt Garza threw him a high fastball, but then we’re all aware that declining batspeed has rendered Griffey useless against plus FBs too: on balls in play, he’s 3-14 against FBs at 93 MPH or more, and he’s struck out in over 20% of his plate appearances against a pitcher with a 93+ MPH FB.
His window is small, and it’s getting smaller. I know Dave and others are incensed with Sweeney and his presence on the team, and I also know the team’s unlikely to do anything with Griffey, but this can’t continue. The argument that he brings in casual fans sounds plausible, but Derek pointed out that it wasn’t actually true last year, and it’s *really* not true this year. A team this limited offensively can’t afford to punt outs, and it’s doing so up and down the line-up. The catching situation is dire, but that just makes it more important to get offense from the DH spot. Oh, and the premise of the Kelley column about Griffey rarely seeing fastballs anymore? Not close. He’s seeing considerably more of them now, more than he’d seen since 2002.

3: You may have heard about a new statistic that Fangraphs is keeping track of as an alternative to the deeply flawed ‘save.’ You can read about how the idea came about here; this essentially went from a rant about saves to a metric on Fangraphs in less than a week. Using win-probability data, a reliever gets a ‘shutdown’ by bringing WPA up by 0.06, and a ‘meltdown’ by dropping WPA by 0.06. This means that many relievers, not just ‘closers,’ have the opportunity to notch a shutdown.
The M’s leader in both shutdowns and meltdowns isn’t the closer, it’s Brandon League. While he hasn’t come in the highest leverage situations (he’s beyond Lowe and Aardsma), he’s managed 5 shutdowns and 4 meltdowns. The latter figure ties him for 2nd most in baseball.
League had a solid game today, but he’s clearly not been as effective as he was last year. His ERA may not have been eye-popping, but his xFIP and tRA were well above average thanks in large part to a new splitter that ended the year as the best pitch in baseball by swinging strike rate. Unfortunately, the pitch just isn’t the same this year – his swinging strike rate on the pitch has been halved. It’s still pretty good, but we all thought we’d acquired a guy with a great out pitch, not a decent one. I’m hoping it’s just a small-sample oddity, but I feel like I’m going to that particular well pretty often these days (seriously Chone: please remember how to hit).


18 Responses to “Notes on Vargas, Griffey, League”

  1. WSU_Dave on May 10th, 2010 12:31 am

    If nothing was done with Griff and Mike Huggy during an 8 game losing streak, just what exactly will it take?

  2. Koala on May 10th, 2010 12:44 am

    If nothing was done with Griff and Mike Huggy during an 8 game losing streak, just what exactly will it take?

    The FO may just want to land a replacement DH first before releasing them (one can only hope).

  3. Jeff Nye on May 10th, 2010 1:10 am

    Luckily, the people who run our front office realize that giving up Dustin Ackley in a trade for Adrian Gonzalez would be a horrible idea.

    That’s if, y’know, Ackley could even be traded before next year.

  4. PackBob on May 10th, 2010 1:15 am

    Griffey has nothing more to prove, and he looks like it. He’s fat, he’s slow, he can’t hit on a team that deperately needs hitting. I’d so much more rather have a young guy in there, eager to prove himself, even if he fails. I have a hard time believing this management wants a winning team when they keep putting Griffey in the lineup.

  5. joser on May 10th, 2010 2:30 am

    Yeah, I really think Fister is going to have a bad outing before Vargas does, just because he’s walking a finer line with his stuff. That said, they’ve both been something of a revelation this year. When RRS is the worst starter in your rotation (and with Bedard out there gearing up to come back) you’ve got to be pretty happy. The crazy thing is that normally in baseball, and historically for the M’s, good starting pitching has been the hardest thing to find. Offense is supposed to be comparatively easy to come by; it’s the rotation that gives everyone grey hair (or makes them pull it out). Imagine what the 2001 team would’ve done going into the postseason with this group of starters?

    And yet from seeming nowhere here’s Vargas (part of that 3-way Guti deal that just keeps on giving) and Fister (a 7th round draft pick).

    So while this year might be getting iffier by the day, and Lee is almost certainly gone after this (and Bedard might be, for health or mutual option reasons), having these kinds of young cheap guys around to plug in will be huge for the M’s to keep getting better over the next couple of years.

  6. Breadbaker on May 10th, 2010 5:06 am

    After hearing the quote by Sweeney about how he’d take a bullet for Alan Cockrell (while obviously not having taken one either figuratively or literally), I have a new nickname for him: Sween-gali. His motto: “We must keep the team together. I am part of the team. Ergo, I must remain.”

    That the team might, with him on it, suck, is of no moment to the Sween-gali. These are not the droids you are looking for.

  7. wabbles on May 10th, 2010 6:37 am

    Yeah, Figgins is making me draw disturbing parallels to Jeff Cirillo. Very disturbing parallels. It seems that whatever happened to him between Colorado and Seattle has gone airborne and infected Figgins.
    As far as the two-headed Designated Hugger spot, the FO MUST realize we are about one or two weeks away from punting Cliff Lee’s only season here. Why go to all the trouble to acquire a recent Cy Young Award winner and then back him up with an offense that could be out-hit by any nine random National League pitchers?

  8. Rusty on May 10th, 2010 6:41 am

    Nice article/analysis, marc. I definitely learned some stuff about the team.

  9. smb on May 10th, 2010 7:07 am

    Better to trade Lee before the deadline or let him leave as a FA at the end of the season?

  10. flluffycat on May 10th, 2010 7:10 am

    Griffey is old, fat, and slow. He isn’t helping the team. It’s time for him to bow out before the continues to embarass himself.

  11. Paul B on May 10th, 2010 7:27 am

    Better to trade Lee before the deadline or let him leave as a FA at the end of the season?

    The only way he gets traded is if the return is more than the 2 draft picks for a Type A.

    How much more? I think that depends on what happens in the standings between now and June, as well as the probability that the M’s could sign him to a longer deal at the end of the season.

  12. Mathball on May 10th, 2010 7:38 am

    I have been wondering for a while now, how much of League’s “best pitch in baseball” has been affected by the lack of catching behind the plate. I can only imagine that if it is that hard to hit it has to be hard to catch.

  13. BelaBartok on May 10th, 2010 9:36 am

    Has Josh Wilson spent any time playing third?

  14. ima-zeliever on May 10th, 2010 9:57 am

    Mathball, that is a great question! I am sure he has to be thinking about it. Mathematically his pitch is harder to hit than a knuckle-ball…

  15. LeftField on May 10th, 2010 9:58 am

    I’m not sure what Steve Kelly is talking about, they have been blowing the fastball by Griffey all season long, does he watch these games? Griff man needs to take one for the team and go on the DL, we can’t win without a DH.

  16. bellacaramella on May 10th, 2010 10:20 am

    Umm, on the Griffey thing, did you read Larry Larue’s blog post today (“For Griffey and the Mariners, the End is Near”)?

    Last week, when some members of the press corps asked manager Don Wakamatsu why he hadn’t used Griffey as a pinch hitter for Rob Johnson late in a game, Waskamatsu was vague.

    Apparently, Griffey was asleep in the clubhouse.

    Can we please just get on with Year 2 of the Jack Z. rebuilding plan? Develop young talent in the farm system, focus on pitching and defense, replace the guys who don’t fit their approach to hitting (3B, DH), get a haul for Cliff Lee, etc.?

  17. MangoLiger on May 10th, 2010 10:20 am

    The M’s leader in both shutdowns and meltdowns isn’t the closer, it’s Brandon League.

    Correction: Aardsma is leading the team with 8 SD, followed by Lowe with 6. League has 5 shutdowns, but he does lead the team with 4 meltdowns.

  18. bilbo27 on May 10th, 2010 2:43 pm

    On Leagues splitter, Drayer says they changed his delivery to make it less likely he’d get injured down the road. This has resulted in his splitter not being where he wants it to be to use in a game situation very often (or basically reading between the lines, his splitter isn’t really working yet with this new delivery). To compensate, I believe Drayer said they’d been working on a slider or something (I can’t really remember, but some other pitch to add to his arsenal to accommodate the loss of the great splitter).

    Personally, this seems a very idiotic thing to do unless something about his old delivery was screaming injury risk. But even then, as a player, I’d need a pretty compelling reason, or rather wouldn’t just take their word for it, to give up my best pitch.

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